One of the great legacies of the Reformation, 500 years ago now, was a new view of Christian ministry. More particularly, it was a new vison of the pastoral ministry of the local congregation. When we gather as God’s people, it is not as if all the important stuff is done up the front by special people (in the medieval period it all happened behind a rood screen too). We are all engaged in what is happening. Prayer when we gather is not only private but common. So too is our praise. We are a congregation not an audience. We serve one another. We are active not passive.
Martin Luther put it in the starkest terms. In one sense we are all priests. We all have unmediated access to God himself. We do not need anyone else to stand between us and God, to dispense God’s grace to us, or to bring us near to him. Yet in another and more important sense, there is only one true priest, the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. He is the one priest; his cross is the one altar, his atoning death the one “full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world”. All that was needed to bring us to God has been done by God himself in Jesus. We do not need special holy men or women.
Nevertheless, the Reformation did not do away with the pastorate. All the mainstream reformers were convinced of the need for those who were properly prepared and set apart to care for God’s people and proclaim to the world the salvation that is only found in Christ. Such people are recognised and authorised by the congregation, or by those given authority to recognise and authorise on behalf of the congregation. In other words, this is not a responsibility someone may just take upon themselves. They are called upon to live out their own discipleship in a public space and to take responsibility both for nurturing the faith of believers and for leading them in the mission that we all share as disciples of Jesus. It is a serious and seriously accountable exercise, as we read in the Anglican ordinal: “And if it should come about that the church, or any of its members, is hurt or hindered as a result of your negligence, you know the greatness of the fault and the judgment that will follow”.
There is only one priest, Jesus. We are all priests as those brought to the Father by Jesus. Yet some of us are called upon to do what belongs to all of us in a more public mode and are freed from other concerns in order to do just that.
By thinking about ministry in that way, the Reformation reconceived the relationship between the pastor and the congregation. Ministers are not somehow more holy or in a different state from the people to whom they minister, with a unique source of spiritual comfort, strength and wisdom not available to others. They stand alongside the rest of us as brothers and sisters who are themselves in need of pastoral care as well as being those who are charged to exercise it. The pastor needs to be pastored as much as the congregation and the most direct and appropriate source of that pastoral care is in fact the congregation in which they serve. In other words, there is a mutuality of ministry that emerges when these basic truths are understood. We have a responsibility for each other, the pastor and the pastored. The goal is that each of us, pastor and people, are nurtured in faith, provided for in love, encouraged in hope, equipped for ministry.
It is interesting how early in Paul’s letter to the Romans he speaks of this mutual ministry, in his case between the apostle to the nations and the young fledgling congregation meeting at the heart of the empire. “For I long to see you”, Paul wrote, “that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Rom. 1:12). At the other end of the letter, having reminded the Roman Christians that “each of us will give an account of himself to God” and then outlining a concern to help rather than hinder other believers, he wrote, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:12, 19).
Mutuality of ministry flourishes when there is a genuine concern for the other in both directions. Once again Paul is a wonderful example of this. His care for the congregations to whom he writes surfaces again and again in his letters. Those who were supportive, like the Philippians, those who were troublesome, like the Corinthians, or those who were struggling, like the Thessalonians — they all knew the apostle sought their welfare even at cost to himself. In the other direction, Paul wrote of the care he had received from these congregations, not just support for the mission (Phil. 4:15), but providing for personal needs (Phil. 4:16), and bearing with his difficulties (Gal 4:13–15). This mutual ministry is most poignantly on display when Paul is farewelled by the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. What grieved them most was “the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again” (v. 38).
Such is the powerful witness of a congregation where that kind of mutual love and ministry is evident, you would expect it to come under attack by the evil one. That attack comes from many quarters today: the professionalisation of ministry, the busyness of life, the public fall of very high-profile Christian leaders, even our obsession with growth and size and the megachurch ideal. Yet beneath these and other contributors to the reduction of fellowship to attendance, of a congregation to an audience, of worshippers to consumers, lies the perennial problem: the self-centredness of sin. We protect our own interests, demand things our own way, insist on our own needs being met. The other-centred love of God in Christ is eclipsed by a determination to get what I want. We are so adept at it we can actually make it sound entirely justified and gospel-driven and when conflict arises it can rapidly deteriorate into a matter of either he goes or we go.
The point I want to make is that the mutual ministry of pastor and congregation is so good, good for those who are involved in it and good as a testimony to the gospel and its impact, that we need to recapture our delight in it. Will we who are pastors commit ourselves afresh to the rich other-centred love of those God has entrusted to our care? Will our every activity be evaluated in terms of God’s singular glory and their eternal welfare? And will we who are congregation members commit ourselves afresh to the same rich other-centred love for the one or ones God has put among us to bring his word to us, to walk alongside us in a life of discipleship, and to lead us in mission? Will we pray for them, support them, and seek to further their eternal welfare in every way available to us?
As we emerge from the COVID pandemic, there is far too much stress, anxiety and conflict among us. We need each other. We need to repent of our hard-heartedness toward each other. God’s word calls upon us to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Pet. 1:22). Our congregations need to return to being beacons of hope in an uncertain world, powerfully effective because of the love that characterises them and thereby gives an added credibility to their proclamation of the gospel. In particular, the mutual love and ministry of the pastor and the congregation is a particularly potent demonstration of that love. If we are going to turn the world upside down again in this next generation, we will need to both speak the truth of God’s word and live the truth of God’s word, and we’ll need to do it in this area as much as any other.